The days of the milkman are gone. As are the days of the cobbler, the doctor who makes house calls (or at least it’s a rarity), the Polaroid camera, the blacksmith, the switchboard operator, and a host of other creature comforts that might be recalled by those in the over-50 set.
Set amid this vanishing world, a throwback even on vintage-loving Martha’s Vineyard, stands a small white edifice with a humble blue sign on Upper Main Street in Edgartown. Adjacent to a parking lot that sits behind the Dairy Queen (one of the Island’s few mainstream franchises), a man in his 60s toils and smiles behind an old Singer sewing machine.
There are no computers here, no cell phones, no bleeping Sonos stereo systems, no cable news blaring from a flat-screen TV. This is the home away from home of Francois Delphin — a.k.a. Francois the tailor. A call to his business landline is met with the Haitian native’s patented patois, “How can we help you?” even before, or in place of, the traditional “Hello.”
On the wall sits a calligraphic diploma in French that Francois received when he engaged in a five-year apprenticeship as a boy in Haiti, and eventually graduated with a coveted degree in design and alteration. “These days,” he confesses, ”people don’t have time to pick up a trade. It takes patience. It’s not about fame and fortune. It’s about developing a craft that can take a lifetime, and using those skills to help people in need.”
If he sounds like an EMT or first responder, the “miracle man” is just that. Specializing in alteration, design, and strange and challenging tailor-made tasks, he recounts a list of quirky and complex jobs customers have brought in over the years.
“I’ve repaired suitcases, briefcases, made a $10,000 sequin wedding gown from scratch, fixed World War II uniforms that no longer fit. I’m currently adjusting the waist on a kilt.” He laughs and holds up a very authentic-looking Scotch plaid garment.
The shop smells like a haberdashery, if such a thing is possible, and represents one of the Island’s longest-running operations. “I began as a tailor at Isaakson’s tailor shop on Martha’s Vineyard many years ago, then moved my business to my apartment on Franklin Street in Vineyard Haven, then finally moved to this location.”
“Everyone knows Francois the tailor,” a customer in the shop explains to me, as if I had failed to understand the function of a fax machine. The grinning master looks up from behind thick spectacles. “What I want people who don’t know me to know is that this is the place that you can bring anything. If you’ve put on a few pounds in the winter, I can fix the waist. If you’re shrinking, I can take it in. If you have family heirlooms from the time of the Mayflower, I can make them look like any generation. I know how to work with all fabrics. I can do anything — especially things that no one else can.”
Francois sells fine suits “to pay the bills,” a fact of life that many Islanders can relate to, but what really lights him up is working with people, getting to know their stories, and helping them to repair or replenish the artifacts that tell those stories of lives lived and lost. “One of the things that fills my heart,” Delphin waxes poetic, “is getting to know all my clients for many, many years. When you’ve been in business as long as I have, people pass away but I know that I am going to see them in a better place.”
Francois Delphin is a very spiritual man, as one might expect from a humble craftsman who has lived his life according to principles like honor, service, and community. He left Haiti as a 20something, moved to Brooklyn, found a home with a cousin in Spring Valley, N.Y., and eventually came to an Island that embraced him. He started a family on Martha’s Vineyard, became a U.S. citizen, and now sees himself as a part of the fabric of this world.
“The Island has changed so much over the years,” Delphin says as he peers out the dusty window obscured by button-down shirts, belts, and bodices. “See that triangle over there? In the old days, that was just fields and the Square Rigger.”
Still, despite the changes and challenges, friends come and gone, modernization and monumental shifts in culture, business, and technology, the man behind the sewing machine maintains a sense of warmth and positivity. “I’m not going anywhere,” promises Delphin. “As long as my health permits, I’ll be here in Edgartown helping people. That’s my favorite thing to do. I want people to know that I am here, and I can help them.”
For those who need something done to a garment — or a glimpse of a professional at work — the old tailor shop near the Dairy Queen is the place to come. “There is plenty of parking out back,” Francois wants his customers to rest assured. “And I am here every day. Please come and see me.”
It all sounds very simple, and it is. Along with the Whaling Church, the Flying Horses, and Alley’s General Store, Martha’s Vineyard is home to numerous treasures. Francois the tailor is one of them.
Francois’ Fine Tailoring, 238 Upper Main St., Edgartown, 508-627-9393.